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A long-time family farm that rewards good taste

Dave Becker and Jonnie Moorhead Judge Dave Becker samples an entry as Jonnie Moorhead adds sour cream to her chilled soup at the annual cooking contest. (Wendy Maeda, Globe Staff)
By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / August 26, 2009

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NEEDHAM - You may have heard that both the family farm and home cooking are dying institutions, but you couldn’t prove it on a recent Saturday here. It’s the 4th annual Farm Field Day at Volante Farms, and as part of the festivities, customers are invited to compete in a cooking contest, vying for $100 in gift certificates. Each entry has to include at least one fruit or vegetable from the farm; three local restaurant chefs are judges.

Events like these raise awareness about the farm’s operation. This once-simple farmstand, started in Newton in 1917 by Peter and Catarina Volante, has grown and expanded over the years. In 2007, a state-of-the-art greenhouse full of flowering plants opened, and today, the farm sells cheese, baked goods, gelato, and more.

But the heart of the business remains homegrown fruits and vegetables. For the recent contest, competitors have plenty to choose from: Bins are overflowing with green beans, lettuces, broccoli, herbs, beets, and corn. There are Massachusetts-grown peaches and plums, and even a few early apples.

Contestants were asked to bring their dishes to the farm in the morning. As soon as Teri Volante and her brother Dave, both part of the fourth generation of farming Volantes, finish setting out the food on a long table under a tent, the judges dive into their task. “All the dishes are really good,’’ announces Jeff Kaye, chef and owner of Fava. “And I’m not surprised; people are really into cooking, and the bar has been raised by all the cooking shows and magazines.’’

“If you’re going to enter a contest,’’ points out Dave Becker, chef and owner of Sweet Basil, “you’re probably a pretty good cook.’’

Perhaps so, but some of these contestants have certainly had fewer years to hone their skills. Michaela Gold, 14, brings fresh fruit tarts drizzled with vanilla cream, based on a cake recipe she found on allrecipes.com, with her own cream and fruit. This is Gold’s first time entering the competition, but contestant Laura London is a veteran who took second place last year with a blueberry lemon buttermilk pie. A mother of three, who this year enters plum biscuits, London grew up in Needham and remembers her own mother shopping at Volante’s. “It was always a great place to get flowers,’’ she says.

Judges carefully ponder each entry, assessing taste and appearance and awarding a score on a scale of 1 to 10. “The chocolate zucchini cake is pretty good,’’ says judge Hugues Boucher of Not Your Average Joe’s. His favorite, though, is a beautifully composed salad of roasted beets, walnuts, and gorgonzola on a bed of greens. And in the end, that beet salad, submitted by Sandra DeJong, prevails. Second place goes to Gold’s fruit tarts. “I’m excited - and surprised,’’ the smiling teenage baker says.

DeJong is not present when the results are announced. Later on the phone, she says, “You can make this salad any time of year, but it’s best when beets are fresh. I bought them at Volante’s that morning. I actually have converted a number of people to liking beets with this recipe.’’

She and her daughters enjoy biking to Volante Farms to pick up fruits and vegetables. Gold lives within walking distance of the farm and her family stops in often for corn, summer fruits, and vegetables. “It’s great having Volante’s as a neighbor,’’ says Michaela’s mom, Bonnie.

For several hours on a sunny day in summer, you would never know the family farm faces extinction or Americans aren’t cooking from scratch anymore. These cooks, at least, will try to keep both alive.

Volante Farms, 829 Central Ave., Needham, 781-444-2351, www.volantefarms.com.